Brinkman was one of the best defensive shortstops of his era

This 1973 Topps card for Eddie Brinkman shows him doing something he wasn't that great at: hitting.

This 1973 Topps card for Eddie Brinkman shows him doing something he wasn’t that great at: hitting.

This doesn’t look like a man who is very confident in his ability to hit a baseball. The slumped stance, the choking up of the hands, the bat held so close to the body, and the uneasy look in the eyes all indicate a hitter who is not exactly sure of what he should do in facing a major league pitcher.

It’s a little surprising that Topps would choose to show Eddie Brinkman in a batting stance. A glove would have been far more appropriate. For most of his 15-year career, Brinkman struggled with the art of hitting. He was the kind of player who would have found it difficult to be an everyday shortstop in today’s game, or certainly at the height of the steroid era, with the emphasis on finding offense at every position. In contrast, Brinkman was a good fit for the era of the 1960s and seventies. Back then, teams willingly gave up hitting for a shortstop who could handle the rigors of playing the position.

Equipped with an unusually long neck and built like a beanpole at six feet, one inch and 160 pounds, Brinkman had excellent range, reliable hands, and a howitzer-like throwing arm that allowed him to make plays deep in the hole. When Brinkman made an over-the-top throw, he had no equal. In terms of overall defensive plays, he was only a shade inferior to Mark “The Blade” Belanger, the man who epitomized slick-fielding, light-hitting shortstops of that era.

Originally signing with the Washington Senators in 1961, the Cincinnati native made his major league debut later that year, courtesy of a four-game cup of coffee. Within two years, he would win the Senators’ starting shortstop job, a position he would hold through the 1970s. He maintained the position despite several seasons in which he batted below ,200, including marks of .185, .187, and .188. He wasn’t a particularly good bunter or hit-and-run man, either. So it was strictly his defensive play that kept him in the Washington lineup throughout the 1960s.

The two offensive exceptions for Brinkman came in his last two seasons with the Senators. That’s when he came under the spell of Ted Williams, who became Washington’s manager. Williams told Brinkman to stop hitting fly balls, hit everything on the ground, and stop swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. Senators batting coach Nellie Fox also helped, tinkering with Brinkman’s swing. Fox convinced Brinkman to use bats with fat handles, choke up several inches, and try to spray the ball to all fields.

Brinkman received the messages from Fox and Williams loudly and clearly. Brinkman batted .266 and .262 over those two seasons, more than doubling his walk totals in the process. He played well enough in 1969 to earn some consideration for American League MVP, an impressive achievement for a hitter who totaled two home runs and 43 RBIs that summer.

Brinkman’s improvement solidified the Senators at shortstop, but it also increased his trade value, making him more desirable to other teams. One of those teams was the Tigers. When the Senators expressed interest in acquiring former ace Denny McLain, the Tigers demanded that Brinkman be a part of the monstrous return package. It was a particularly shrewd decision by Tigers GM Jim Campbell.

That ill-fated deal would crippled the Senators, but it would fortify the Tigers with a new left side of the infield, comprised of Brinkman at shortstop and Aurelio Rodriguez at third base, along with a very good right-handed starter in Joe Coleman.

With Williams no longer around to deliver his daily messages about hitting to his prized student, Brinkman reverted to some of his previous batting habits. In his first year with the Tigers, his batting average fell from the .260 range to .228.

Yet, that didn’t make the trade a failure, far from it. First, the trade united Brinkman with Billy Martin, the Tigers’ manager. Martin saw some of himself in the scrappy, defensive-minded Brinkman. Martin loved Brinkman, to the point where he played him almost every game. Appearing in 159 out of a possible 162 games, Brinkman continued to play his position with precision and efficiency, toughening the Tigers on the left side of their infield. With Brinkman at short and Rodriguez at third, few ground balls made their way into left field against the Tigers, who finished a strong second in the American League East race.

Then came the watershed season of 1972, a season of peculiar extremes for Brinkman. His hitting fell off terribly, his batting average dipping to a meager .203 and his on-base percentage dropping to a ghastly .259. Those figures masked the other contributions that Brinkman made. He hit six home runs, exceeding his total of the previous five seasons combined. He also contributed a number of game-winning hits, including five times from the seventh inning on.

Even more importantly, Brinkman raised his fielding to an even higher level, playing shortstop as if he had suction cups on his hands. “Steady Eddie” turned the double play beautifully with both Dick McAuliffe and Tony Taylor (who platooned at second base) and ranged far and wide to both sides. In particular, Brinkman frequently made the backhanded stop in the hole, planting himself on the outfield grass before firing another laser to first base.

How good was Brinkman’s fielding? So good that over one stretch, he went 72 innings without committing an error, setting a new record for major league shortstops. (The record would eventually be broken by Cal Ripken, Jr.) Brinkman’s record-setting streak drew such attention that President Richard Nixon sent him a congratulatory message in midssummer. For the season, Brinkman committed only seven errors, putting his fielding percentage at .990, a princely mark for a shortstop.

Brinkman’s fielding set such a high standard that he actually placed ninth in the MVP race, a stunning finish for a player with a batting average barely above .200. The Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America did one better, naming him “Tiger of the Year” and awarding him the honor over bigger name-brand players like Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Lolich.

Bolstered by Brinkman, the Tigers won the Eastern Division by a half game over the Red Sox. Brinkman then played the first game of the Championship Series against the A’s, but he felt numbness in his feet and legs. The condition caused him to miss the final four games of the playoffs, which the Tigers lost in excruciating fashion. As it turned out, Brinkman had a serious injury, a ruptured lumbar disc, which required surgery after the abbreviated postseason run.

Feeling better after the surgical procedure, Brinkman bounced back to play in every one of the Tigers’ games in 1973. He played so well that he earned his first selection to the All-Star Game. And then in 1974, he showed power that had never before been evident, clubbing 14 home runs.

Under other circumstances, Detroit would have kept Brinkman, but with an aging team needing to rebuild, the Tigers traded their 33-year-old infielder to the Padres in a deal for slugging Nate Colbert. Brinkman never played a game for the Padres, instead splitting the 1975 season, his swansong, with the Cardinals, Rangers, and Yankees.

Later as a coach for the Tigers, Padres, and White Sox, Brinkman brought his congenial, upbeat personality to his work as a fielding instructor. He did especially good work with the White Sox during the 1980s. He then scouted for the Sox, remaining in that position until his retirement in 2000.

A few years after his coaching career ended, Brinkman developed lung cancer, a common malady for players of his era. Sadly, his bout with cancer did not last long, as the disease claimed his life in 2008, when he was just 66 years old. It was too soon for a good guy and an agreeable man who had so many more baseball memories to offer.

For much of Brinkman’s career, the bat, such as the one that he held on his Topps card, must have felt like a foreign object. But not the glove; the glove fit smoothly and perfectly, to the point that only the great Mark Belanger was a better defensive shortstop during his era. When it came to mastering the position of shortstop, few have been any better than Steady Eddie Brinkman.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.